Tigers’ frustrating season was filled with heroic moments

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Justin Verlander

Detroit – How to sum up the 2016 baseball season in Detroit?

Well, if we may be a tad insensitive, it was like an aging supermodel – it looks a lot better from a distance.

In real time, the Tigers’ season was fraught with frustration. An unending string of injuries and galling losses. Prolonged slumps by several elite players. An almost pathological inability to beat the Indians, the top team in their division. And capped, miserably, by two losses in Atlanta, where, with a wild-card spot on the line, the club fanned 27 times.

Yet, looking at it from a distance of just three months, it was a kind of heroic effort. Because despite all the injuries, despite starting their everyday lineup just 14 games, and despite the early struggles, the franchise-record 1,303 strikeouts, the manic ups and downs of several vital players, and confounding inconsistency, the Tigers found a way to stay in contention until the final Sunday of the season.

Not a small accomplishment.

And along the way we were treated to some stirring performances: Justin Verlander, back in Cy Young-worthy form. Miguel Cabrera again putting the team on his back and silencing those who thought he was in decline. Michael Fulmer announcing his big-league presence with ultimate authority. Justin Upton working through his own personal nightmare to produce a 31-homer, 87-RBI year. The clutch home runs of J.D. Martinez. The day-in, day-out, professional-grade performance of Ian Kinsler and the defensive wizardry of shortstop Jose Iglesias.

The ultimate goal was not attained. There was no postseason baseball in Detroit for the second straight season. But it was a wild -- at times exasperating, at times exhilarating -- ride.

MILESTONES

April 20: Victor Martinez notched his 1,000th career RBI at Kansas City.

May 18: Justin Verlander posted his 2,000th career strikeout. The victim was the Twins’ Eddie Rosario.

May 18: Ian Kinsler homered in his fourth straight game, becoming the Tigers first second baseman since Dick McAuliffe in 1969 to achieve that feat.

Francisco Rodriguez gets a hug from Victor Martinez after recording his 400th career save.

May 24: Closer Francisco Rodriguez became the sixth member of the 400 Saves Club. He joined Mariano Rivera (652), Trevor Hoffman (601), Lee Smith (478), John Franco (424) and Billy Wagner (422) as the only pitchers in the history of the game to record at least 400 saves. Afterward he proclaimed, “I am not done.” He was not.

June 12: Miguel Cabrera became the fifth-youngest player to reach 2,400 hits.

June 17: Michael Fulmer’s franchise-record streak of 33 consecutive scoreless innings ended when he gave up a two-out sixth inning home run to Salvador Perez. It was the second longest streak by a rookie in history, bested only by Fernando Valenzuela (35 scoreless innings) in 1981.

July 3: Ian Kinsler belted his 200th career home run, winning a race with teammate Justin Upton, who would hit his 200th 15 days later. With the homer, Kinsler became the 40th player in Major League Baseball history – and the seventh fastest -- to achieve 200 home runs, 1,000 runs, 1,600 hits and 200 stolen bases.

July 22: Miguel Cabrera recorded his 1,500th career RBI, a game-winner against the White Sox.

Sept. 5: Francisco Rodriguez earned his 39th save of the season, and his 425th all-time, moving into fourth place among the game’s all-time saves leaders, passing Wagner and Franco and trailing only Rivera, Hoffman and Smith.

Sept. 18: Miguel Cabrera became the 100th player in Major League history and the youngest since Hank Aaron in 1967, to reach the 2,500 hit mark. He joined Aaron, Ty Cobb, Jimmie Foxx, Rogers Hornsby, Mel Ott, Alex Rodriguez and Robin Yount as the only players to get their 2,500th hit in their age-33 season.

* Miguel Cabrera, with 38 home runs, posted his 10th season with 30-plus homers, the most in franchise history. He topped 100 RBIs (108) for the 12th time in his career, the sixth most in MLB history. He has eight 100-plus RBI seasons with the Tigers, tying Harry Heilmann for most in club history.

* Cameron Maybin, though often injured, hit .374 at Comerica Park, third-best single-season average in the park’s history.

HIGHLIGHTS

May 15: Trailing 5-4 at Baltimore with two outs in the eighth inning, about to drop 12 of the last 13 games, and with manager Brad Ausmus’ job possibly on the line, J.D. Martinez and Miguel Cabrera hit back-to-back home runs off set-up man Darren O’Day to steal a 6-5 win.

Tigers manager Brad Ausmus puts his sweatshirt on home plate after being ejected from the game against the Minnesota Twins at Comerica Park.

May 16: Ausmus had himself a tirade for the ages, directed at umpire Doug Eddings. After several of his players came back to the dugout fuming about the strike zone, Ausmus unleashed a profane and sunflower seed-laced verbal assault on Eddings, capping it by stripping off his hoodie and draping it over the plate. He was suspended for a game but the Tigers went on to win nine of the next 11.

June 20: A thriller at Comerica. Justin Upton hit two home runs, including the walk-off game-winner in an 8-7 win over the Mariners. But it was Miguel Cabrera’s blast that had people buzzing long after the game. He clouted one that took a hop off the catwalk in centerfield and bounced out of the park.

June 30: The Tigers erupted for eight runs in the eighth inning at Tampa, erasing a five-run deficit in a 10-7 win. It was just the seventh time since 1913 the Tigers had won a game after being down five in the ninth. Also, in the last five years, teams league-wide were 3-2,779 when down five in the ninth. Twelve Tigers came to the plate. Cameron Maybin had the big hit, a three-run double.

Aug. 3: Goose-bumps moment. J.D. Martinez, just activated from the DL after nearly seven weeks, was summoned to pinch-hit against White Sox ace Chris Sale to lead off the eighth inning in a 1-1 game. A sellout crowd at Comerica came to its feet before Martinez even stepped into the box. And on the first big-league pitch he’d seen since June 16, he smashed a 93 mph fastball 434 feet into the shrubbery in centerfield. It sent the Tigers to their eighth straight win and put them into a tie for the second wild-card spot.

Aug. 24: Miguel Cabrera had four hits, including two doubles and a monster home run to the center field berm at Target Field, in the Tigers’ 9-4 against the Twins. It was Cabrera’s ninth hit in 13 at-bats. It was the capping of a 31-game slugfest for Cabrera -- .393 average, .726 slugging with nine doubles, 10 home runs and 27 RBIs.

Tigers catcher James McCann, right, and Justin Upton dump the cooler of water on JaCoby Jones after the Tigers beat the White Sox 8-4 at Comerica Park on Aug. 30. It was Jones' major-league debut, and he made it memorable with two hits, two RBIs and a run scored.

Aug. 30: With his mother and father in the stands, rookie JaCoby Jones made his big league debut with a pair of hits, including a two-run double in a win over the White Sox. On the next day, he hit two more doubles and scored the winning run. Nice first impression.

Sept. 4: If you ever wondered what type of ballplayer Ian Kinsler is, just watch the video of this play. In Kansas City, with the tying run on third and one out, Alex Gordon hit a shot at Kinsler, 101 mph off the bat. Kinsler somehow blocked it, though the ball smashed a finger on his right hand. He still scampered to the ball and got the out at first. Then, he reached down and grabbed a fistful of dirt to staunch the bleeding. Classic Kinsler.

Sept. 18: There weren’t many highlights against the Indians, but this was one of them. Enraged after Indians starter Trevor Bauer beaned Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler (head) and Victor Martinez in the first three innings, the Tigers put a 9-5 whipping on the Tribe. The win was highlighted by a 451-foot home run by Justin Upton, after which he may have set a record for the slowest, most deliberate home run trot.

ODDITIES

April 5-6: Victor Martinez homered in his first two at-bats of the season, both pinch-hit homers in Miami. He wound up with three pinch-hit home runs last season.

April 24: Manager Brad Ausmus challenged Indians reliever Bryan Shaw, whom he thought he was scuffing the ball with his wedding ring. Turned out, the ring was made of rubber. “If you can find a way to scuff a ball with a rubber ring, more power to you,” Shaw said. “I've had it on the last two and a half years and nobody's said a word about it from any team.”

April 25: Miguel Cabrera, hitting just .206 with one home run, decides to use one of Brad Ausmus’ old bats in batting practice. Though he used his own bat in the game, the mojo worked. Cabrera went 4-for-4 with a home run. “I couldn’t get any hits with it, I figured if anybody could squeeze hits out of it, it’d be Miggy,” Ausmus said. “There are plenty of hits still in it.”

April 25: Tyler Collins who was being jeered after misplaying a fly ball, flipped off the fans from his position in center field. Despite his apologies, the fans booed him relentlessly and he was soon dispatched back to Toledo.

May 8: Rangers catcher Bobby Wilson, who had been with the Tigers just the week before, hit a grand slam home run off Mark Lowe in a seven-run eighth inning.

June 26: A day Justin Verlander would like to forget. He gave up four home runs to the Indians – all in the fifth inning. Mike Napoli, Lonnie Chisenhall, Juan Uribe and Tyler Naquin all took him deep in the inning.

July 31: James McCann hit the first grand slam of his career – and he hit it off his former teammate at the University of Arkansas, Dallas Keuchel. It was the third home run McCann has hit off fellow Razorbacks – he’s hit two off Drew Smyly.

Aug. 27: It may not have been as volcanic as Brad Ausmus’ tirade against umpire Doug Eddings earlier in the season, but it made up for that in quantity. Four Tigers were ejected by umpire Mike Everitt – Victor Martinez, J.D. Martinez, Ausmus and hitting coach Wally Joyner.  Suffice to say, the Tigers were not impressed with Everitt’s interpretation of the strike zone.

Sept. 18: As if the game at Progressive Field couldn’t get any zanier, what with the beanball war instigated by the Indians’ Trevor Bauer, Ian Kinsler was ejected by a completely phantom call by umpire Jordan Baker in the fifth inning. “I think Jordan saw something that wasn't really happening,” manager Brad Ausmus said.  Kinsler and Miguel Cabrera were engaged in an animated discussion as they came into the dugout after the fifth inning. Kinsler was beaned by a pitch in the third inning and had complained bitterly that Bauer should’ve been tossed. Baker apparently assumed Kinsler was still complaining about him and gave him the boot.

* Shortstop Jose Iglesias hit four home runs all season, but he hit them off some good pitchers -- Chris Sale, Max Scherzer, Adam Conley and Drew Pomeranz.

* The Tigers weren’t very nice to former teammate Joakim Soria in 2016. They beat him twice – on walk-offs by Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Justin Upton – and scored six runs off him in 10 innings.

* It was a feast-or-famine type year. The Tigers slugged 211 homers, third most in franchise history behind the 1987 (225) and 1999 (212) teams. But, the team also amassed a franchise-high 1,303 strikeouts.

* Victor Martinez played five games at first base last season. In those games he went 10-for-21 (.476) with an OPS of 1.024.

MALADIES

March 25: In his first official at-bat in spring training, Cameron Maybin was struck by a Luis Severino fastball, breaking a bone in his wrist. That injury, followed by a shoulder injury during his rehab assignment in Toledo, would keep him out of the lineup until May 16. He would play just 94 games for the Tigers.

It was a struggle for Jordan Zimmermann to stay healthy all season.

May 22: Jordan Zimmermann, the American League pitcher of the month in April, left the game in the sixth inning with a groin injury. It would be the last time we’d see a healthy Zimmermann. He battled groin, neck and shoulder injuries the rest of the way.

May 11: Former Tiger Max Scherzer struck out 20 Tigers, becoming the fifth player in history to achieve that feat. “It was like a horror film,” J.D. Martinez said. “He's got stuff. He's got pitches that will put you away. He's got three pitches that can put you away, that fastball, the slider and the changeup. I think he put me away with every one of them.”

June 16: J.D. Martinez, who had been on a hot streak at the plate, crashed into the wall in foul territory in right field at Kauffman Stadium chasing an extra base hit by Paulo Orlando. He immediately grabbed his right elbow, though he still managed, somehow, to throw the ball back in. Later it was revealed he had broken a small bone in his elbow and would miss seven weeks.

July 24: The Tigers had the misfortune to get walked-off twice by the White Sox on the same day. Adam Eaton singled off Justin Wilson to beat the Tigers in the completion of a game suspended from the night before. And then, after the Tigers had tied the game in the top of the ninth, with Nick Castellanos, Tyler Collins and Jarrod Saltalamacchia all homering off David Robertson, Melky Cabrera ended the nightcap with a game-winning single off Bruce Rondon. The Tigers, though, would rebound nicely, winning the next eight straight games.

Aug. 6: On a night when the Tigers won a 6-5 thriller over the Mets, when J.D. Martinez threw out Jay Bruce at home plate for the final out, third baseman Nick Castellanos’ breakout season was derailed. His hand was broken by a pitch from Logan Verrett. He wouldn’t return until the final week of the season.

Aug. 9: In a near five-hour drama in Seattle, a game in which Justin Wilson blew a three-run lead in the eighth, Victor Martinez put the Tigers ahead with a home run in the top of the 15th inning. But for just the third time, Francisco Rodriguez couldn’t close it out. He gave up an RBI single to Kyle Seager and a game-winning sacrifice fly to Chris Iannetta. It was part of a debilitating five-game losing streak.

Sept. 17: Ian Kinsler led off the game with a line-drive single off the leg of Indians pitcher Carlos Carrasco, forcing him out of the game. A procession of eight straight relievers proceed to shut out the Tigers on just three hits over the next 10 innings – a Major League first. The Tigers lost 1-0 in the 10th, their eighth walk-off loss and 11th shutout.

Sept. 26: With a 7-4 win the Indians clinched the Central Division title and celebrated on the field at Comerica Park. It was the third time in six years an opponent has celebrated a title on the Tigers’ turf -- the Giants won the World Series in 2012 and the Orioles won the division series in 2014.

Oct. 2: Needing to win to force a Game 163 against the Indians at Comerica Park and to keep their ultra-slim wild-card hopes alive, the Tigers lost 1-0 to Julio Teheran and the Braves in the last game ever played at Turner Field. Teheran fanned 12 and the Tigers, in the last two games of the season, struck out 27 times.

QUOTES

Justin Verlander in a tweet on May 3: “I’m going to dominate soon! I’m close. Doubt me if you want … We’ll see.” From that point on, he went 14-6 with a 2.42 ERA with 221 strikeouts in 193 innings. Opponents hit .193 off him.

Justin Verlander, later in the season: “I don’t think I’m going to look back and say I told you so. That’s your job to say it for me.”

James McCann, after playing in front of approximately 2,000 fans at Target Field in September: “Their ‘Dress up like a seat, get in free’ promotion worked pretty good.”

The Nationals' Max Scherzer, asked after striking out 20 Tigers, if he’d prefer that over pitching a no-hitter: “I’ll take 20 strikeouts. Strikeouts are sexy.”

Manager Brad Ausmus, reiterating what became his mantra for the season: “Screw yesterday, (bleep) tomorrow, win today.”

Justin Upton, after an 11-4 loss to the Indians in September: “That (crap) can’t happen. It wasn’t a pretty game. If we play good baseball and lose, that’s one thing. We didn’t play good baseball.”

Anthony Gose, asked how he deals with things mentally when he’s struggling: “Try not to shoot myself. That’s what it comes down to.”

Daniel Norris, insisting he did not intentionally try to hit the Indians’ Rajai Davis in retaliation of three Tigers who were hit by Trevor Bauer: “There is kind of a hole in the mound. I was trying to go inside, establish myself in because (Davis) likes to dive out over the plate. When I hit the hole, I just yanked it. I threw kind of an accidental cutter behind him.”

Jose Iglesias

Jose Iglesias, on his personal growth: “When you are young, you don’t see things. Later on you realize it’s important. At the end of the day, it’s a process. We’ve all been through our 20s, you know? It’s all about making adjustments. It depends on who you want to be. If you want to be great, you make adjustments.”

Tyler Collins, after making an obscene gesture toward the fans at Comerica Park: “I’m absolutely embarrassed that happened and I am very sorry. To everybody in Detroit. I just want you guys to understand, I love this team. I want to win. So when we come home and get booed, it’s tough to swallow. But like I said, I apologize completely. I’m embarrassed at myself. I know my family is embarrassed and I’m sure these guys are, too. I’m sorry it happened.”

Justin Verlander, on performance enhancing drugs: “I won’t put anything in my system that’s (not NSF approved). I don’t worry about it. Test me every day, I don’t care. I’ve been that way my whole career. I don’t have a problem with steroids; I have a problem with cheating. If everybody is allowed to take it – fine. But nobody is allowed to take it. And if you do, you are cheating everybody else.”

Jarrod Saltalamacchia, after pitcher Jordan Zimmermann twice shook him off to throw a slider to Twins Byung Ho Park: “Typical pitcher. Starts to think and ruins everything.” Park hit the slider 426 feet over the wall in center field.

J.D. Martinez, after his dramatic pinch-hit, first-pitch, game-winning home run off Chris Sale: “Honestly, I was so pumped up, I just hit it, and I knew I hit it good. I wasn’t expecting to get that kind of ovation that they gave me when I was walking in. That was awesome. I couldn’t ask for anything more. If I could thank the fans individually, I would thank them. That was just really cool.”

Brad Ausmus, on the day Prince Fielder announced he would retire, reflected on watching Prince as a 13-year-old, hitting balls out of old Tiger Stadium: “It pissed me off that he hit the ball farther than me and I was almost 20 years older. “That's what stood out. He was hitting balls as far as I could hit them when I was 27 years old. I never liked that little brat (laughing).”

Miguel Cabrera, responding to the negative chatter he’s heard on various social media platforms: “It doesn't matter what people say. 'We're not going to make it.' ‘We're not going to do this or that.’ We hear a lot of bad things, but we always have to stay positive. A lot of people say negative things, but we have to stay positive. (Points to his iPhone) This is dangerous. … Stay positive Detroit.”

Nick Castellanos, summing up the greatness of Miguel Cabrera like only he can: “It’s just Miggy. It’s Miggy being Miggy. It’s no secret. It’s not a surprise. It’s not a new story. It’s Miguel Cabrera. … He’s just a phenomenal baseball player. It doesn’t matter if it’s spring training or taking live BP on the back fields in Lakeland or if it’s the World Series. Miggy is Miggy, man.”

Ian Kinsler, on the team’s future: “We are well-positioned. We have a lot of talent, a lot of young talent. We’re going to be fine. But we need to figure out how to get better. We’re not a playoff team right now, so we need to get better.”

Brad Ausmus’ message to the team after the season-ending loss in Atlanta: “I told them I was proud of the way they went about their business. It sucks we’re not going to the postseason. That’s what you do all the work in spring training for. That’s your goal and we didn’t attain our goal. In that sense, we fell short. But sometimes there is a bigger picture. And the bigger picture for me was how they went about their business and how their performance carried us to the last game of the season.”

Twitter @cmccosky